Posts Tagged ‘Education’

Today we move on to the economy and the role of government. Sparks are sure to fly.

6. “A few government and U.S. history textbooks suffer from an uncritical celebration of the free enterprise system, both by ignoring legitimate problems created by capitalism and failing to include coverage of government’s role in U.S. economic system.”

(a) Here, according to the Texas Freedom Network, are the kinds of outrageous remarks the textbooks under consideration make about free enterprise:

The atmosphere of a free market, as well as a free society that encourages the exchange of ideas, can and often does lead to innovation and scientific and technological discoveries. All these conditions promote growth in the economy and often improve the quality of everyday life.

The proper role of government in economic affairs should be restricted to functions intended to promote and protect the free play of competition and the operation of the laws of supply and demand. True laissez-faire capitalism has never in fact operated in this country, yet it has a profound effect on the structure of the nation’s economic system, which can be described as laissez-faire capitalism with limited government involvement.

The Network admits that the free enterprise system has led to great material and intellectual progress. But they want some discussion of its disadvantages and limitations.

… the text’s treatment of the free enterprise system is unbalanced and asymmetrical because the text provides little mention of the possible limits and disadvantages of a free enterprise and laissez- faire system. Students are given little awareness that critics of a laissez-faire system, both in the U.S. today and the past, have argued that an unfettered market can and has occasionally led to economic insecurity and inequality, unfair pay and unsafe labor conditions for many employees.

Identifying free enterprise and laissez-faire, as the Network and arguably the latter text do, is a mistake. The American market has not been “unfettered” anytime in the past century, and probably since the nation’s founding. In any case, it’s hard to evaluate this complaint without seeing the larger context in the texts in question. I’m inclined to count the complaint against the first text as bogus. A free market and free exchange of ideas do bring great benefits, and there’s no need for a “however.” The quote from the second text sounds as if it’s an endorsement of a libertarian approach to economic affairs, but I’m guessing that in context it’s clear that this is the proper role of government according to advocates of laissez-faire capitalism. I’ll hesitantly call this debatable.

(b) Another text mentions complaints about the Gilded Age, but responds,

The dizzying array of things to do and buy convinced the growing middle class that modern America was in a true golden age.”[…] [sic] The application of scientific discoveries and technological innovations by the free enterprise system improved the standard of living in the United States. Driven by entrepreneurs, American businesses were able to create products and services that made daily life easier and more fun for many people. Mass produced materials and products lowered the prices of many goods, enabling ordinary Americans to purchase items that previously had been out of reach.

The Network denounces this treatment, saying,

nineteenth-century free- market capitalism went hand in hand with governmental suppression of Native ownership over vast swaths of fertile land, leading to that land’s transformation (first) into public property and (second) into private property protected by law. Without governmental action, that transformation would not have happened. Second, nobody during the age of early industrialization disputed the importance of active governmental support for “internal improvements” that were beyond private means. And finally, any comprehensive discussion of the history of free-market capitalism in this country should note that the great driving commodity of the pre-Civil War economy was cotton, produced by slave labor on an enormous scale.

To call this complaint bogus is kind; it is ridiculous. The Gilded Age is the period, roughly, 1870-1900, in which the fruits of the Second Industrial Revolution spread to a growing middle class. It was the era in which department stores, music halls, theaters, large consumer products companies, mass circulation newspapers and magazines, team sports, and other accoutrements of an urbane middle-class lifestyle were born. The wealth that had concentrated earlier in the century as a result of the First Industrial Revolution began to spread throughout a substantial portion of society.

During this era, yes, the government fought wars against tribes in the West, swindled them out of large areas of land, confined them to reservations, etc. But this had little to do with the key developments of the Second Industrial Revolution or the rise of the middle-class. So, it’s hard to see how it’s relevant to the topic at hand. The closing decades of the nineteenth century were NOT “the age of early industrialization,” so it’s hard to see how the building of roads and canals earlier in the century is particularly relevant either. The Network wants the book to make a “They didn’t build that!” point. But it’s the Network, not the textbook, that’s pushing a political agenda here. Finally, why is the role of cotton before 1861 relevant to events in the Gilded Age? It’s not. The Network wants the text to say that the Gilded Age’s improvements in the quality of life were due, not to free enterprise, but due to earlier government involvement and to OPPRESSION, of slaves and of Native Americans. That’s preposterous. Bogus, bogus, bogus.

(c) One text contains praise of capitalism:

The capitalist economic system of the United States helped spur industrial growth. In capitalism, individuals and businesses own property and decide how to use it. The people—not the government—control capital, which includes the buildings, land, machines, money, and other items used to create wealth.

Again, the Network insists on a “You didn’t build that” approach:

This passage ignores a very important dimension of American economic development after the Revolution: the argument, developed by Alexander Hamilton, that government power is needed to foster development in an active way, including projects that are beyond private capital’s reach. The declarative statement that “people – not the government – control capital” seems to dismiss even the possibility of this more complicated relationship between individuals, the government and capital. In addition, the debate over public regulation of both individual and corporate enterprise remains an active subject of contention in American economic and legal life to the present day. Students should have a context for understanding that debate.

Let’s look carefully at what the text is saying. Capitalism “helped spur industrial growth.” It doesn’t say that capitalism was solely responsible for growth. Second, it says that our economic system allows people and businesses to own property and decide how to use it. Is the Network denying that? Finally, the text says that the people rather than the government control capital. Again, isn’t that true? The contrast is with socialism, which puts government in control of property and centralizes decision-making. I don’t read the passage as denying the possibility of regulation or of public projects. This, moreover, is a middle-school U.S. history textbook that ends its coverage in 1877. There were important public works projects within its time frame, and important issues about the proper role of government—the Hamilton/Jefferson debate, Andrew Jackson’s assault on the Bank of the United States, Henry Clay’s “American system”—all of which receive coverage in the book. But the main expansion of the government’s role occurs after 1877, outside the frame of coverage of the book. Asking it to do more than it already does on this score is bogus.

(d) One government text says, to introduce its discussion of taxation,

In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., taxes are ‘what we pay for civilized society.’ Society does not appear to be much more civilized today than it was when Justice Holmes made that observation in 1927. However, ‘what we pay’ has certainly gone up.

Ah! But society is much more civiilzed today, says the Network:

The text neglects to mention that defenders of increased taxation for an expanded safety net would respond that programs adopted since 1927 such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act have produced such ‘civilized’ benefits as a drastic reduction of poverty and economic insecurity among the elderly, children, and the population at large, and improved and more equal access to health care.

The text should be insisting on the benefits of the welfare state, and trumpeting Obamacare! (I thought Obamacare was going to lower costs, by the way, not justify increased taxation in the decades since 1927. But, whatever.) Again, it’s the Network that’s trying to politicize things. The points they raise are in any event irrelevant to the point the book is introducing, which is that income tax rates have skyrocketed from a top rate of 7% when the tax was introduced. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are financed separately; in theory, at least, they have no bearing on income tax rates. Obamacare hasn’t even been fully implemented yet; it’s no explanation for the increase in the tax burden that’s taken place over the past century. The Network’s objection is completely bogus.

(e) The Network complains about a cartoon—a cartoon!—implying that taxes are high and that people don’t like paying them:

The text also includes an ideologically slanted cartoon. [“Gibbs, I subtracted your federal, state and social security taxes and medical from your paycheck, and you owe the firm $50.” The caption for the cartoon reads: “Taxes fund public programs and services, but some question the need for that spending and criticize the burden those taxes place on taxpayers. What comment does this cartoon make?”]

What’s Wrong? The text gives students the impression that Americans are very heavily taxed without placing this information in historical or cross-national context. For instance, the text could have mentioned that according to the Congressional Budget Office in 2011, federal taxes as a percentage of the GDP were at their lowest rate since 1950. The text might also have mentioned that the United States has the lowest corporate tax burden of any member nation of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The use of this cartoon is also unbalanced because the text provides no counterbalancing illustration suggesting that excessively low taxes might lead to economic insecurity and poverty, or critical of the lack of an adequate safety net for low-income Americans.

The Network evidently has no sense of humor. Instead of including a cartoon that’s making a joke, the text should have told students that taxes in the United States are low by historic and international standards. The Network’s “facts” are incorrect; federal taxes as a percentage of GDP sank in the aftermath of the economic crisis, but have rebounded, and are nearly as high as they were in 1942! And, we have the highest corporate tax rate in the OECD; we collect less revenue from it than the other members because (a) Congress enacts loopholes to benefit campaign contributors and (b) our high rate encourages firms to structure their earning to avoid taxation—and even to shift operations and ownership overseas. I’m inclined to count this complaint trivial, but it shows how far the Network is willing to go to insist that textbooks ought to reflect Democratic talking points. Bogus.



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5. “Several world geography and history textbooks suffer from an incomplete – and often inaccurate – account of religions other than Christianity.”

Here, the Network is on firmer ground. Geographers and historians aren’t specialists in religion or philosophy, and they often oversimplify or make mistakes. Consider some particular complaints:

(a) In describing Buddhism’s second Noble Truth, one text says, “Selfishness is the cause of suffering,” and later calls it “a cause of suffering.” The Network says the first is wrong and the second misleading, since, “According to the Buddha, the cause of suffering is not selfishness but desire; selfishness is only one form of desire.” The Pali term is tanha, which is usually translated as desire, selfish desire, or craving. It’s not far from the Biblical term ‘coveting.’ Though the text’s claim isn’t without any basis—selfish desire is an acceptable translation—selfishness by itself isn’t a very good rendering. I consider the complaint reasonable.

(b) Another book says, “Hindus are strict vegetarians.” Not true, says the Network, and they’re right. Some Hindu darshanas prohibit meat-eating, but others don’t. Reasonable.

(c) A Teachers’ Edition states, “All three religions [Judaism, Christianity, Islam] see Jesus as an important prophet, but only Christians see him as the messiah, or expected leader and savior.” Not so, the Network observes; most Jews do not think of Jesus as a prophet. That’s right; the complaint is reasonable.

(d) The Network criticizes one book for its imbalance: “The lesson on the history of Southwest Asia devotes only six sentences to Judaism’s origins and does not include a discussion of the Diaspora. By contrast, the lesson devotes two pages to Islam and its spread.” Their objection: “This is not adequate attention to the important events surrounding the history of the Jewish faith tradition and culture.” In a history book I think this choice would be sensible; the spread of Islam dominated the history of a substantial portion of the world for centuries, and included the many wars mentioned in an earlier post in this series. In a book on world cultures and geography, however, it seems less defensible. Judaism is the leading religion only in Israel, so, even for such a book, one could argue, its spread deserves less attention than the spread of Islam. But it’s not clear whether that argument is decisive. I count this one debatable.

(e) “Coverage of key Christian concepts and historical events are lacking in a few textbooks, often due to the assumption that all students are Christians and familiar with Christian events and doctrine.” The books generally don’t define such terms as ‘Protestant,’ ‘Catholic,’ ‘Orthodox,’ though they do define ‘Sunni,’ ‘Shi’ite,’ etc. The Network observes:

Whereas the lesson on Southwest Asia states: “The teachings of Jesus led to the rise of Christianity,” it does not explain what those teachings were or how Christianity spread. In contrast, the authors devote a full page to the teachings of Muhammad, Muslim practices (the Five Pillars), and the spread of Islam.

What’s Wrong? Given the increasing number of Texas students who come from outside the Christian tradition, textbooks should not assume that readers are familiar with what Christianity is and how it spread.

I’m amused that the Network demands more discussion of Christianity; I suspect the authors were worried that such discussion would have led to the opposite complaint. And the authors undoubtedly thought, correctly, that the percentage of Christians in their intended audience would be much higher than the percentage of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, etc. But it’s a fair point. Even Christian students often have a sketchy conception of the teachings and history of their own religion. And those with other religious beliefs, or with no religious background at all, are likely to have even less exposure to the history and teachings of Christianity. So, I consider this objection reasonable.

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Yesterday I talked about the Texas Freedom Network’s report on textbooks submitted to satisfy the new Texas Social Studies standards, looking at one set of complaints. Today I’ll continue by evaluating additional issues raised by the report, again as reasonable, debatable, or bogus.

2. “Two government textbooks include misleading information that undermines the Constitutional concept of the separation of church and state.”

The first of these contains the sentence, “Thomas Jefferson once referred to the establishment clause as a ‘wall of separation between church and state.’ That phrase is not used in the Constitution, however.” The Network admits, “The statement is factually correct.” So, what’s the problem? “[I]t could give students the inaccurate impression that Jefferson’s view was personal and lacked significant connection to the First Amendment.” The Network wants the text to mention that James Madison also held this view. (Did he? If he did, why isn’t it in the Constitution? Could he himself have thought it was his own personal view and not a matter of law?) The Network also wants the text to talk about the Supreme Court’s use of the phrase in subsequent decisions. That use is of course controversial. The general form of this complaint, then, is that the textbook says something true that someone could take as undermining the Network’s preferred view of controversial issues without discussing other things that might help to support their view. We’ll see that form again and again. I rate this bogus.

The Network complains that the second textbook doesn’t mention the “wall of separation” at all. I see no reason why a textbook author has to mention things that support the Network’s position on disputed political questions. So, this too looks bogus.

The next complaint against that textbook is that it presents an unbalanced view of the school prayer decisions, in particular Engel v. Vitale, discussing the lower courts’ reasoning in support of school prayer more extensively than the Supreme Court’s reasoning against it. That might be because the Court’s reasoning is simple, and doesn’t require much discussion:

The petitioners contend, among other things, that the state laws requiring or permitting use of the Regents’ prayer must be struck down as a violation of the Establishment Clause because that prayer was composed by governmental officials as a part of a governmental program to further religious beliefs. For this reason, petitioners argue, the State’s use of the Regents’ prayer in its public school system breaches the constitutional wall of separation between Church and State. We agree with that contention, since we think that the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that, in this country, it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government….

There can be no doubt that New York’s state prayer program officially establishes the religious beliefs embodied in the Regents’ prayer.

Still, a textbook should try to present arguments on both sides in as balanced a way as possible. So, I rate this complaint reasonable.

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The Texas Freedom Network, a left-wing group as committed to Freedom as the former German Democratic Republic was committed to democracy, has issued a report blasting the textbooks that publishers have submitted to the Texas State Board of Education to go along with the new state guidelines, passed in 2010 after considerable controversy, which I wrote about here. Some of the complaints are justifiable, though generally minor. But most are tendentious, to put it kindly. In fact most of the “errors” they allege are not errors at all, but differences in emphasis.

Let’s look at some of the “critical issues” the Texas Freedom Network report identifies. I’ll classify them as reasonable, debatable, or bogus.

1. “A number of government and world history textbooks exaggerate Judeo-Christian influence on the nation’s founding and Western political tradition.” How do they do this?

(a) One mentions the Biblical idea of a covenant as influencing the Founders’ concept of the social contract, which, the Network argues, is in John Locke “in many ways a repudiation of the biblical covenant view.” Is that true? It would be fair enough to point out that in Chapter 8 of the Second Treatise of Government Locke observes that the Jews are to some extent an exception to his point about the social contract being the foundation of government, “where God himself immediately interposed.” He goes on to give examples to support his social contract view from the histories of Greece, Rome, and Venice. But that doesn’t deny that the social contract is analogous to the Biblical covenant. This claim isn’t an error; it’s at worst debatable.

(b) Other textbooks list Moses as among the figures who influenced the Founders’ conception of government for originating the concept of a written code of laws. The Network complains that this is vague: Which laws? They also object that Mosaic law is given by God, unlike the laws of a republic. But that does nothing to deny that the concept of public, written laws to live by is important to the American Founding and in fact to the concept of the rule of law itself. I would have thought that a better objection would be that Hammurabi dates from the 18th century BC, while most scholars date Moses as having lived sometime between the 16th and 13th centuries BC. Still, the thought that the Ten Commandments have influenced our conception of law strikes me as uncontroversial. So, this complaint strikes me as bogus.

(c) Still another book states, “The Framers’ political thinking was influenced by a Judeo-­Christian religious heritage, which includes traditions common to both Judaism and Christianity. These religions see the law and individual rights as being of divine origin. Moreover, the Framers benefited from the Protestant Reformation, a sixteenth-‐century Christian reform movement whose leaders developed ideas about individual responsibility, the freedom to worship as one chooses, and self-­government.” That seems uncontroversial. Why does the Network object? I’ll quote them fully, since this paragraph exemplifies the sloppy thinking behind many other objections:

This passage gives no example of a law or set of laws in the Bible that influenced the Founders and no example of a Founder or a founding document that was influenced by the “Judeo-Christian” concept of law. The text’s claim that the Reformation was a source of the Founders’ views on individual responsibility omits several important pieces of information. Major figures in the Protestant Reformation such as Martin Luther and John Calvin may have supported freedom of worship for their own views, but they often did not support freedom of worship for many competing religious views. Similarly, the views of major Reformation figures, including Luther and Calvin, about self-government were far more limited than, and had little in common with, the views of the American Founders about self-government. Finally, the paragraph could leave students with a misleading impression about the Founders’ religious views. The passage’s claim that Judaism and Christianity stresses that individual rights is of “divine origin” and that these views influenced all of the Founders suggests that all of the Founders believed that this biblical God was the source of natural rights. Many Founders did, of course, believe in the biblical God. Other Founders, though, were influenced by deism, and their conception of God departed in significant ways from the biblical God.

Let’s take that bit-by-bit.

This passage gives no example of a law or set of laws in the Bible that influenced the Founders and no example of a Founder or a founding document that was influenced by the “Judeo-Christian” concept of law.

Since when is failure to cite an example in a given passage an argument against it? Besides, isn’t this easy to do? Recognize this passage from the beginning of a founding document?

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

“Laws of Nature”? “Nature’s God”? “Creator”? Sounds like some influence to me. I rate this complaint bogus.

But let’s continue:

The text’s claim that the Reformation was a source of the Founders’ views on individual responsibility omits several important pieces of information. Major figures in the Protestant Reformation such as Martin Luther and John Calvin may have supported freedom of worship for their own views, but they often did not support freedom of worship for many competing religious views. Similarly, the views of major Reformation figures, including Luther and Calvin, about self-government were far more limited than, and had little in common with, the views of the American Founders about self-government.

But to say that this passage “omits several important pieces of information” is no argument against its truth. I take it as obvious that Thomas Jefferson influenced Abraham Lincoln; that they might have disagreed about a number of issues, and even disagreed about the proper role of the federal government, is no argument against that claim. This one too is bogus.

Finally, the paragraph could leave students with a misleading impression about the Founders’ religious views. The passage’s claim that Judaism and Christianity stresses that individual rights is of “divine origin” and that these views influenced all of the Founders suggests that all of the Founders believed that this biblical God was the source of natural rights. Many Founders did, of course, believe in the biblical God. Other Founders, though, were influenced by deism, and their conception of God departed in significant ways from the biblical God.

This is inaccurate; the textbook spoke of “the Framers” generically, saying nothing about “all of the Founders.” Moreover, that some Founders were deists does nothing to refute the assertion that even their conceptions of rights were influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition. “X was influenced by Y” is NOT refuted by the fact that X and Y disagreed about certain issues, even certain foundational issues. Again, the complaint is bogus.

(d) Another textbook writes (again, I would have thought, uncontroversially), ““The roots of democratic government in today’s world – including government in the United States – lie deep in human history. They reach back most particularly to ancient Greece and Rome, and include elements related to Judeo-­Christian philosophy, dating back thousands of years to Old Testament texts and Biblical figures such as Moses and Solomon.” The Network complains that Moses and Solomon did not govern democratically. But that is neither here nor there; the text makes no such claim. The roots, the book says, include elements related to Judeo-Christian philosophy. That’s a very cautious claim, analogous to asserting that the roots of the theory of relativity include elements related to medieval impetus theory. That’s surely true, and pointing out that Albert of Saxony was no relativity theorist cuts no ice against it. So, the Network’s objection is bogus.

(e) One book states, “Because one of Jesus’s basic principles was the equality of all people in the eyes of God, equality before the law became a central belief within the Judeo-Christian tradition.” What’s wrong with that? Jesus wasn’t the first to think so, says the Network—but the book in no way implies that he was! Moreover, the chain of causation isn’t straightforward—unlike all those other historical trends spanning millennia that ARE straightforward? Perhaps it will suffice to quote Locke, describing the state of nature as

A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty. (emphasis added)

Locke begins his discussion of property similarly: “God, who hath given the world to men in common….” The link between equality and the will of God is not deeply hidden in the shrouds of history; it’s right there in the chief philosophical text underlying the American Founding, at the beginning of its most famous sections. Bogus.

Tomorrow I’ll look at the Network’s objections to textbook portrayals of the separation of church and state.

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The last eight months of my life have been dominated by creating and running a massively open online course (MOOC) on twentieth-century intellectual history. The course has ended, and I seem to remember that I had a life before all this started. I hope I can get back to it.

The course, one of the first humanities MOOCs, attracted 35,000 students, of whom about 8,000 actually did some of the work. That’s a common feature of MOOCs. My course was offered through EdX, a consortium started by MIT and Harvard. It’s a nonprofit committed to courses being free. So, a lot of people sign up on impulse, or just to explore.

The audience wasn’t what I had expected to encounter. Three-fourths of the students were from outside the United States. More than half already had bachelor’s degrees. Almost ten percent had PhDs or other doctoral level degrees.

The amount of work involved in putting this together was immense. I quickly learned that effectiveness in the classroom isn’t the same, at all, as effectiveness in a video format. A pause, a glance down, a look around—all those seem thoughtful in the classroom but incompetent on film. I couldn’t just lecture from PowerPoint (really, in my case, Keynote) slides or notes; I had to script everything. I didn’t realize that until filming had started. So, throughout the month of May, I stayed up writing scripts until 1 or 2 in the morning, woke up at 6 to go over the day’s scripts, got on the bus at 8, filmed from 9 to 1, and then worked on scripts for the next day. By the end of the month I was exhausted. The videos contain some stupid mistakes (like mistranslating Kampf, or mistaking Manet for Monet) as a result of performing on very little sleep.

Once filming ended, editing began. For five months, I collected images—about 5,000, overall—to be inserted into the videos. All had to be documented for copyright and permission purposes. I had a part-time undergraduate assistant to help. He was terrific. But I should have had one or two others as well. The video production team I worked with was fantastic.  I nicknamed the video editor “Little Miss Lightning” for her astounding speed and accuracy with Final Cut Pro. My student assistant worked on multiple choice quiz questions and discussion questions, which I then edited. Bottom line: producing this MOOC took months of really hard work from a team of talented people.

Actually running the MOOC was easier, though the discussion boards require and merit lots of attention, and we were plagued with software problems that inevitably accompany being one of the early courses on a new platform. Many students had little to say on the discussion boards, but, as one might expect from 35,000 people, some were terrific. Reading the top posts was like being in a very high-level seminar.

Some lessons I’ve learned from the experience:

1. Creating a MOOC is much harder than you think. Estimate the time it will take and the assistance you’ll need, and then multiply by three.

2. Starting just four months before the course is to begin doesn’t leave you enough time. Six months is a bare minimum. A year would be better.

3. Reducing a 50-minute lecture to an 8-15 minute video is possible. But it takes some time to learn how to do it.

4. MOOCs can communicate information very effectively. Performance on the quizzes after videos and readings was excellent.

5. Reducing 50 classroom minutes to a 10-minute video leaves out a lot. Some of it probably doesn’t matter. But two things probably do. (a) You can give students the bottom line, but you don’t really have time to explain how you got there. So, you can teach students what people thought, what happened, etc. But it’s much harder to teach them why they thought that, why that happened, etc. (b) You can’t explore alternative explanations, possible objections, and the like in any depth. So, the video presentations feel rather one-dimensional; the classroom experience feels many-dimensional.

6. The students are likely to be much better than you anticipate. Aim high. The video format is going to reduce the effective level of your teaching anyway. So, aim at college freshmen, as I did, and you’ll probably be producing something below the level of much of your audience.

7. Understand at the outset what you want to do with the course material, and keep good records from the beginning. We decided halfway through to produce videos that could, someday, be sold commercially, though that’s no part of the current plan. That meant identifying the images that were Creative Commons “share alike” and replacing them, which was a lot of extra work. Don’t expect Google Image search to do this for you. Specifying “able to use, share, or modify, even commercially” doesn’t screen out “share alike” images.

8. No one understands the business model underlying MOOCs. Right now MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, my university, and many others are offering MOOCs—which cost more than $100,000 each to produce—-for free, in effect as loss leaders or marketing devices. That’s worthwhile, from a marketing point of view—how much would a university pay otherwise to get a global audience to see their names beside MIT and Harvard under the heading, “Take great online courses from the world’s best universities”?—but it’s not a model that supports a full slate of course offerings. Someone is going to have to figure out how to make some money from doing this, even if it’s just enough to cover the costs of producing the course. I’m confident that it can be done, but no one sees clearly how to do it at this point.

Why am I confident, you ask? Suppose that a life of a course offered this way is five years. (Many are relatively timeless and might last much longer. But assume we want a five-year payback.) Most of the 35,000 who signed up for my course were gawkers who probably wouldn’t have registered if they had to pay even a small amount. So, let’s restrict attention to the roughly 8,000 who did some work. Over five years, that’s 40,000 people participating. The cost of my course was roughly $150,000. So, all the university would have to recover is about $4 per student to make the enterprise viable. Of course, there’s overhead and the time and effort of EdX to consider as well. But it seems likely that $10 per student would suffice. So, financial viability isn’t that far away.

9. The audience for MOOCs is global, which means that there’s great demand for courses with a global content. Mine, designed for students at my university, was too U.S.-centric. That three-fourths of my students would be from outside the United States, and thousands would be from India alone, came as a surprise to me. MOOCs should be designed with that in mind from the beginning.

10. You can assign papers, many of which will be good, and about 5-10% of which will be fantastic, better than anything you’re likely to see from an American college student. Grading hundreds or thousands of papers presents serious challenges, however. And lots of students who participate in discussions and quizzes won’t do them, so assigning papers drastically cuts your completion rate.

I decided that we would be guinea pigs, testing out a new AI grading tool. In the end I had to grade about 500 papers, and the tool graded the rest. We’re researching how it did. The concept is intriguing; the tool is a PDP system, a connectionist network that learns from the papers I grade (on a rubric I designed) and then tries to mimic me. It’s too early to evaluate the results, but initial data are encouraging.

The student reactions to the MOOC have been interesting, and much more varied than those of my in-class students. Overwhelmingly, students have been appreciative and grateful. But there are dissenting voices. I have, as you might expect, a conservative take on twentieth-century intellectual history, and some students—especially European students—find it objectionable. ‘Aghast’ is the word that some of them use to describe their reactions to my praise of Margaret Thatcher, for example. One student was a Stalinist who insisted that my lecture on Stalin was filled with anti-Soviet propaganda. How dare I allege that Stalin had people killed? In a country as large as the U.S.S.R., he pointed out, of course a lot of people die!

I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to do this course. I’m grateful that I teach where I do, and not in Europe. Finally, I’m grateful it’s over!

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The National Association of Scholars recently completed a study of history courses offered at The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University. It’s absolutely on target:

Our findings in this study shed light on a source of Americans’ increasing ignorance about their own history. At the two institutions we studied, the focus on race, class, and gender often tended to crowd out the teaching of other perspectives, and many U.S. history courses failed to provide a comprehensive rendering of U.S. history as a whole. Thematically skewed teaching leads to an incompleteness of knowledge, as recent studies of American history knowledge among students demonstrate. Faculty members at the University of Texas and Texas A&M University teaching U.S. history courses in the semester we studied made assignments that disproportionally favored themes of race, class, and gender [RCG] over all other themes.

The details are startling, even to those of us in other departments on campus:

Major Findings:

  • High emphasis on race, class, and gender in reading assignments. 78 percent of UT faculty members were high assigners of RCG readings; 50 percent of A&M faculty members were high assigners of RCG readings.
  • High level of race, class, and gender research interests among faculty members teaching these courses. 78 percent of UT faculty members had special research interests in RCG; 64 percent of A&M faculty members had special research interests in RCG.

Faculty in the history department have feigned outrage at this criticism, though I remember history and government faculty bragging thirty years ago about how they had tricked the legislature by turning its requirement that students take a year of American history and a year of American government into a license to teach whatever they wanted.

Here’s a view of how this looks from a student’s perspective. This week, I received a message from a student from my fall semester course about what he’s taking this spring. Here is his message, together with my reply:

  • Hey… I’m in US history covering 1492-1865 and am having to read A People’s History of The United States by Howard Zinn which is essentially a sad book about how terrible the United States has been to everyone from the Native Americans, to the Mexicans in the Mexican American War, to the blacks, and the Vietnamese and Koreans and Japanese during world war 2… Basically, the thesis of my history class thus far and to the end of the course is that our country is built upon oppressing other nations and ravaging the world around us through our warped justification of divine right and American Exceptionalism. Similarly, my Sociology class has the same crusade… in fact communism has been presented in a favorable light during sociology and we’ve learned about the U.S. “oppressing” the middle east… Obviously this is a total deviation from your … class in which America was shown in a pretty optimistic and favorable light… So I’m asking you as i try to keep my faith in this country… Should i loathe the United States? What do you think? I feel like a voice in the wilderness holding onto patriotism and the american dream and capitalism and American goodness.

  • Hey, …! Good to hear from you!

    Zinn was a communist, and his book, widely used, means precisely to get the citizens of the US to loathe their own country. The Gramscian march through the institutions has been going on for a long time, and departments of history, sociology, anthropology, English, etc., are deeply infected with this kind of thinking.

    I don’t mean to say that bad things didn’t take place. President Jackson’s treatment of the Cherokees, for example, was an outrage. Internment of Japanese-Americans was an overreaction with a profound human toll. I’ve never understood how we supposedly oppressed the Arab world.

    But the US has also freed slaves, freed hundreds of millions to pursue their dreams, tolerated dissent, expanded civil rights, and fought for the protection of human rights.

    Moreover, I see our failings as *human* failings, not the failings of the US or of capitalism or of whatever else people blame. No society throughout the entire history of the world has been free from crime, oppression, and war. Compared to Nazi Germany, the USSR, Communist China, North Korea, and eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain, the US looks positively magnificent. But those are countries in which the far left has taken control. Far from bringing about the promised utopia, they’ve brought about poverty, hopelessness, enslavement, disrespect for human rights, and mass murder.

    This isn’t just because the wrong people somehow took charge. It’s essential to socialism. If wealth and power are to be redistributed, someone gets to redistribute them, and, guess what? They keep most of it for themselves. The “social justice” schtick is for the rubes.

    If you want a dramatic illustration of the results of free enterprise within a constitutional republic as opposed to socialism within a “people’s republic,” look at this series of photographs from Germany: scenes from East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, then, the same spots twenty years later, after the fall of the Wall.

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Alternative Education

Glenn Reynolds writes about the growing popularity of alternatives to traditional public education. He makes an important sociological observation:

This Industrial Era approach (public schools were organized in the 19th century on a Prussian model, explicitly to produce obedient, orderly workers) had advantages. But it also had disadvantages. Like interchangeable parts in an industrial machine, students were treated alike, regardless of their individual characteristics and needs. Square peg, meet round hole.

Putting kids together and sorting by age also created that dysfunctional creature, the “teenager.” Once, teen-agers weren’t so much a demographic as adults-in-training. They worked, did farm chores, watched children and generally functioned in the real world. They got status and recognition for doing these things well, and they got shame and disapproval for doing them badly.

But once they were segregated by age in public schools, teens looked to their peers for status and recognition instead of to society at large. As Thomas Hine writes in The American Heritage, “Young people became teenagers because we had nothing better for them to do. We began seeing them not as productive but as gullible consumers.”

When one thinks about the effects of the teenager on our culture at large, the point becomes even more significant. As recently as the 1950s, the dominant culture—as expressed in movies, TV shows, music, theater, and news media—was by and for adults. By the 1960s, that had changed, and our culture became a youth culture, one in which the dominant trends are determined by what appeals to teenagers. The youth culture takes its direction from the preferences of young people who are isolated from the responsibilities of the adult world, get status and recognition from one another, and thus are highly manipulable. The Gramscian march has succeeded as well as it has not only because the Left has concentrated on institutions of cultural transmission but because we have constructed a stage of life during which the influence of such institutions is disproportionately large. We have allowed schools, films, the music industry, and other means of cultural transmission to shape our children, consigning parents, grandparents, and the world of work to the back seat.

This was my primary concern in deciding to homeschool my own children. I wanted to spend more time with them than the standard pattern allows. I didn’t want teachers and peers to get six-to-eight hours a day with my children, while I got a few hours in the evening when everyone was tired. I didn’t want my kids raised to become obedient line workers; I didn’t want them to be indoctrinated with Leftist claptrap. And I didn’t want them steeped in a secular view of the world that turns religion into a matter of personal taste. So, I kept them at home, where we were able to keep up with what they needed to do to be on pace with their public-school peers in two or three hours a day. The other hours? They were able to investigate things they cared about. For one, that was mostly math, science, and computers. For the other, it was baroque music. And they were able to spend a lot more time than their peers just being kids.

Alternatives are coming to higher education in the form of massively open online courses. Indeed, I’ve been blogging so little over the past few months because I’ve been working on turning a course I teach on the 20th century into a massively open online course. I’ve been filming classes, editing the results, and posting them on YouTube as a way of getting ready for a more official and concentrated effort. Thinking about an online course opens up a realm of possibilities. A traditional university course is structured around 50-minute or 75-minute segments, into which the content has to be poured. In an online version, things don’t have to be structured that way. They can be segmented however the subject matter demands. That might involve 2-5 minute definitions of key terms, 5-10 minute discussions of a particular issue, 10-20 minute explorations of a topic, etc. The point is that packaging courses online can lead to innovations with real educational advantages. Will online courses be as good as on-campus courses? They might turn out to be better.

The public schools have by and large decided to follow the music industry in fighting technological innovation, clinging bitterly to an outmoded business model. Ecxpect the same for most of higher education. But a few far-sighted institutions (including, fortunately, my own) are seeing the possibilities and deciding to adapt. Meanwhile, those seeking educations at all levels are voting with the their feet—or, more accurately, with their computers, which put a world of information at their fingertips.

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